Michael Archer, a son of a preacher man, was barely out of his teens when he unleashed his debut album: a record of such lusty sophistication and debauchery, it sounded like it was cut in the dead of night by some bugged-out genius, not a kid who probably still sweated under the collar every time he bought booze. You can still practically hear the sound of weed smoke blowing from the speakers when you listen to the extraordinary ‘Brown Sugar’, released 20 years ago today under the man’s stage name: D’Angelo. Packed with shades of Al Green, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye and Prince, it was a sleeper hit that eventually made him a mega star, with an influence that has since hung heavy over everyone from Erykah Badu to Jungle.
It’s almost supernaturally carnal throughout, right from the jazzy opening chords of its title track. ‘Brown Sugar’ remains the sexiest weed jam you’re ever likely to come across (“see we be making love constantly/That’s why my eyes are a shade blood burgundy”) while D sounds equally heavy-eyed on ‘Jonz In My Bonz’, melding graceful organ melodies with nods to no-nonsense boom-bap of the New York hip-hop scene.
That song, like most numbers on ‘Brown Sugar’ had a free-spirited feel, as though the whole thing was laid onto tape during over the most perfect long-weekend jam session of all time. Meanwhile, there was an underground jazz club vibe to the plucked double bass and mischievous piano of ‘Smooth’ and ‘When They Get By’, while D got nasty on the bluesy ‘Shit, Damn, Motherfucker’, calling out a dude his wife had been creeping with. “I’m ‘bout to go get my nine/And kill both of y’all behind,” he threatens. Elsewhere, songs for the radio came in the form of a lustrous cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘Crusin’’ and ‘Lady’ – a pretty pop track the singer supposedly hated.
D’Angelo, though, was dissatisfied with much of ‘Brown Sugar’. He wanted a rougher sound than the one co-producer Bob Power had helped him forge, and hungered to break free from traditional song structure. As quickly as he wrote the neo-soul blueprint here, he tore it up five years later, on the darkly hypnotic psych-funk epic, ‘Voodoo’ – a record that cemented him as a daring R&B futurist.
His subsequent records have been incredible artistic statements in their own right – including ‘Black Messiah’, released last December after a fourteen year exile, lit up by a powerful undercurrent of civil rights movement protest. The raw eroticism and experimental flourishes of ‘Brown Sugar’, 20 years on, though, remains completely addictive. It laid a neo-soul blueprint that Badu, Alicia Keys and dozens of others have followed. But more importantly, it introduced the world to a master who wouldn’t settle for stardom. D’Angelo wanted greatness.